In the new issue of The Indypendent, writer Arun Gupta discusses the mainstream political media’s obsession with scandal. In his piece, “Scandalicious: Why Political Reporting Feasts on Drama and Trivia”, Gupta argues that scandal-mongering is a cash cow for corporate, mainstream media and that this explains the aggressiveness and frequency with which scandals are pushed on media audiences. This part of the argument doesn’t seem very groundbreaking or controversial–my guess is most people who have any degree of awareness about media consumption have some understanding of this.
Gupta argues that this scandal-mongering continues despite the fact that a recent survey about the election campaign showed that “77% of voters wanted to hear more about the candidates’ positions on the issues.” I’m a little skeptical of this. I don’t doubt that the figure is accurate, that 77% of voters did state their desire to hear more straightforward policy talk on the news. I don’t even necessarily doubt that 77% truly felt this way. But I do know that there is a lot of evidence to show that people’s stated preferences and their actual television viewing habits are often widely divergent. Scandal is compelling–more so the more salacious it is. That’s human nature and that’s exactly why it’s so lucrative for media conglomerates. Most viewers can’t help themselves (er, ourselves), even if their stated wish is for more substance and less fluff and misdirection.
Gupta’s goes on to discusses scandal-mongering and sensationalism in the specific context of the election. He argues that the media’s obsession with drumming up scandal, and the public’s obsession with gobbling it up are not inevitable. He claims that if the public became more politically aware, better educated about politics, history, and economics, that in-depth, investigative journalism would be able to grab more of the market share and, at least to some degree, replace tabloid-y political reporting with more issues-based, fact-based content. I agree with him for the most part, but I’d like to play the devil’s advocate a little bit with his argument. I do believe that improving our education system, particularly in the areas mentioned in the article, would contribute to a more informed public and that it might give to a higher level of journalistic accountability and a demand for more issues-based content. I’m just not sure that it is necessarily as simple as Gupta makes it sound.
I’m thinking of Laurie Ouellette’s 2003 article “TV Viewing as Good Citizenship? Political Rationality, Enlightened Democracy and PBS“. In this article, Ouellette explores the ideas of media and democracy (specifically in the context of PBS) and issues encountered by reformers trying to broaden the audience of more elevated, fact and discourse based, politically and socially aware programming, to expand democratic engagement and counteract what were perceived as the corrupting, inferior, lowbrow forces of much commercial television. She explores issues of class and normative, elitist assumptions about what constitutes elevated, worthwhile, intelligent public discourse. Ouellette not only discusses why these efforts failed to achieve their intended goal, she also points out that all media content, including, and in some ways especially, more high-brow, intellectual content is fraught with many normative assumptions and dynamics of power. In fact, she argues that it is often a fine line between participatory democracy and social control, for historical, politicical, and economic education and discourse inherently contain a particular world view and require the acceptance of “an aesthetic and political order governed by higher authority” (Ouellette, 120).
Gupta also fails to take into account another form of education that might render profound changes in the media landscape were it more widely incorporated into U.S. schools–media literacy education. This is a field I’ve been learning more and more about, one which helps children (and adults) build the critical and interpretive skills and awareness of the multitude of media of all forms each of us consumes daily. Media literacy tends to be structured in such a way that it focuses on broader analytic tools and seeks to foster a greater sense of awareness and healthy skepticism of all media content. Programs around the country, and around the world, have shown remarkable success at introducing a broadly applicable sense of critical awareness and sense of empowerment to children across the socioeconomic spectrum, giving them the skills not only to process the media they ingest differently, but to actively participate in the creation of their own media of various forms.
Part of me thinks maybe the issue should not be framed as either/or, but as both/and. Sure, scandal-mongering journalism should not dominate the public discourse as it currently does, but I wonder if any amount of education or heightened awareness of the constructed, commercialized nature of media will fundamentally change the fact that people love salacious, scandalous stories. I’m very media-aware and I still find it very difficult to resist a good scandal sometimes, whether it’s Britney Spears’ latest meltdown or Sarah Palin’s latest gaffe. I could resist if I wanted to, but sometimes I simply don’t. I don’t think that’s a reflection on a lack of political, social, or historical knowledge–I think it’s mostly just human nature, the same instinct that makes people gawk at a car accident, the fascination, the obsessive curiosity about the fortunes and misfortunes of our fellow human beings. Of course I think it’s incredibly important to be informed about history and politics, to be media literate and aware. That knowledge gives you a broader awareness and understanding of the significance of the choices you’re making as a consumer of media and as a citizen. It empowers you and gives you the tools to advocate for the change you want to see in the media. But while I’d love to see more “serious”, fact-based, investigative types of journalism take center stage, a part of me also hopes there will still be room in the spectrum for a little bit of scandal.